Sunday, June 3, 2012

Fr. Gresko looks at Christopher West's, "At the Heart of the Gospel"

I'm of the opinion that certain conflicts should be looked at as an opportunity for growth among the Mystical Body of Christ.  The West-Wars is just such a conflict.  It is one that has been filled with emotion, so much so, that I believe robust discourse has been largely suppressed.  People take sides, sometime making use of the "brand equity rule," rather than looking at the arguments and the material in question.  What I mean is that bishops, priests and lay people, hearing that some take issue with West's presentation and material may very well dismiss one side or the other depending on who is on which side.  This is a dangerous practice.  Anyone concerned should do their own homework rather than accept someone else's word.  When well moderated discourse on a conflict takes place, the ultimate outcome is that which is produced in friction: A pearl.  There need not be winners or losers; rather, when all seek the truth, then all win as that truth is embraced and people move forward based on that.  Hence, even if West's critics are right, the only way West loses is if he fails to come along.

In recent years there have been a number of dust-ups between respectable theologians and others over the work of Christopher West and his interpretation of Pope John Paul II's teachings on what is commonly referred to as, "Theology of the Body."  This is not a 'liberal' versus 'conservative' issue.  It's a genuine set of disagreements between good Catholics about the interpretation and presentation of Pope John Paul II's teaching on conjugal love.

I have encountered a number of Catholics who feel the conflict is simply over West's style. They might argue that when dealing with today's young people, it's a necessary evil to "talk dirty." I disagree in that there are limits and we can never use evil to do good. I also think that we treat young people like they are too stupid to understand good rhetoric. A speaker can be dynamic and interesting without gutter talk when it comes to discussing sexual morality. I don't think there is any context that the Song of Songs should be referred to as, "the Centerfold of the Bible." For my non-english readers, most associate the word, "centerfold," with the center, unfolded page of a pornography magazine.

But, if you have read all of the concerns raised over the past few years regarding Christopher West's works, you will know that it is not a disagreement about style, but also one of substance. I was taken aback in 2006 when I found popular Catholic apologists online telling married couples they could engage in things like, 'marital sodomy' as long as the act was completed in a way that was open to life. It was always followed up by a recommendation to read one of West's books. Somewhat uncomfortable at the time, I removed a link to his site from my sidebar along with similar references. Soon after, I learned that priests I knew also had the same concerns, and then some.

Later, the "West-Wars" exploded in Catholic news and blog circles after a Nightline interview with West that went terribly wrong.  In reading all of the debates that would follow - those of critics and defenders,  I came to understand why some felt there were problems with West's understanding of concupiscence - that is, our inclination towards evil on account of Original Sin.

Over time, I developed other problems with what West was teaching, such as his presentation of the Paschal Candle as a 'phallic symbol'.  Sr. Lorraine Trouve who has edited some of West's works was good enough to explore objections to this that many made, including myself.  She offered a detailed response after looking deeply at the matter and agreed that it should not be regarded as a phallic symbol.  Her well-written post can be read at her blog here: The Wood in Water - What Does the Easter Candle Symbolize?  Unfortunately, I have not seen Christopher West correct his teachings on this subject.  I do not have his latest book so I do not know if he has addressed it there.

Fr. Gresko Offers Thoughts on West's Latest Book

This leads me to the point of my post.  Fr. Gregory Gresko has written an extensive review of some things in Christopher West's latest book, "At the Heart of the Gospel: Reclaiming the Body for the New Evangelization."

First, who is Fr. Gresko?  From his bio at the bottom of the guest column he wrote at Catholic News Agency:

Fr. Gregory Gresko is Chaplain of the Blessed John Paul II Shrine in Washington, D.C.  He earned his S.T.B. from the Pontifical Athenaeum of Sant’Anselmo in Rome and his S.T.L. magna cum laude in marriage and family studies from the John Paul II Institute of the Pontifical Lateran University (Rome).  His licentiate dissertation was entitled, “Educating to Love: Foundational Pedagogy in Light of Karol Wojtyla’s Love and Responsibility”. 

Fr. Gresko currently is working on his doctoral thesis for the same Vatican institute, on “The Consecration of the Family to the Heart of Jesus in Light of the Pastoral Ministry of Père Mateo Crawley-Boevey,”  He blogs at The Blogging Monk
Fr. Gresko’s work on the theology of love has been featured by Inside the Vatican as well as Catholic Online, including in interviews on EWTN, Catholic News Agency, and VocationBoom.

There is an introductory article at Catholic News Agency (CNA).  However, I would encourage you to invest your time reading the actual guest column at CNA.  Take your time and read slowly.  I think he does a very good job of presenting his concerns.  People are free to disagree, but they cannot say that he was "attacking" West.  The priest was quite dispassionate and looking at it rather academically.  At one point, he calls on the Magisterium to step in to protect Pope John Paul II's teachings from incorrect interpretations.  I hope the Church will take on the matter, at least to study it more deeply, rather than taking the word of this person or that. Then, to offer clarity to us all with the hope that we will grow in our understanding, rather than quarrel.  The quarreling has gone on long enough.

Go read Fr. Gresko's in-depth look at Christopher West's, At the Heart of the Gospel: The Interpersonal Communion of Hearts.  Fr. Gresko will have a followup, but it's going to appear in Inside the Vatican Magazine.  This is one of the last Catholic magazines standing and I encourage you to subscribe because it features some very good articles that are not necessarily in the "old news" category you may get with a news magazine.

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